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Chapter 22: “the star-spangled Banner.”

  • Preparations for another move.
  • -- Anxiously waiting. -- rebel Advice. -- turned loose. -- a Pathetic Scene. -- tears and curses. -- Manifestations of joy at sight of the old flag. -- God's country

It was the last of April, 1865. Thirtythree hundred prisoners were encamped on that little island. The quartermaster brought in our rations, and we noticed more sacks than usual. What does it mean? The old quartermaster gave a knowing wink, and said he was going to fatten us. We wisely guessed that they were going to move us.

The rations measured out three pints of meal per man. Bob and I had our sock full, shook down, and packed-and then had [184] to take part of our rations in his bucket.

Next morning we were up by times, and were soon all ready and waiting to see what would happen. Soon a train of cars came down. We were loaded on, and went eastward a few miles — as far as the rails were laid, as the iron had been taken off this road, to mend others nearly all the way from Jacksonville to Lake City.

When we got to the end of the railroad we were ordered off the cars, and marched out on the old road bed ahead of the engine. The colonel who had command of our general then made us a speech.

He told us that they were tired of guarding us. They knew our time was out, and that we were anxious to get home. They were going to the front to fight, and so had decided to turn us loose. He advised us to go home, and stay there; and to tell our friends at the North that we “could never whip the rebels in the world!” He told us to follow the railroad-bed and it would take us to Jacksonville — which was in possession of the Yanks.

This is the substance of his speech, although [185] he embellished it with much boasting and many oaths.

The whole speech was a lie. He was included in Johnson's surrender to Sherman, and was then under orders to go to Tallehasse to turn over his arms to the United States authorities. This we learned after we got out.

After this speech the guard opened ranks, and we marched out. “Good-bye, Johnnies!” “Good-bye, Yanks!” --were the parting salutations.

Were we really free? Could we go or stop, as we pleased? It was like a dream! It was so sudden-so unexpected. Our minds were not prepared for it. We could hardly realize it. We felt like shouting! A great load had been suddenly lifted-but how? What had become of it?

I do not remember how far we had to travel. It seems like it was forty-two miles from our camp to Jacksonville; but I can't remember how far they took us on the cars. I think it was eight or ten miles, but am not sure.

In our excitement at being turned loose [186] we started off at too rapid a rate. Soon the sick ones began to fall by the way. Some went a mile and gave out; some two or three, and failed; others five or six-and so we were strung out all along the road. Bob and I kept well up with the head of the column. Bob was lame with scurvy in his limbs, but he was plucky; and I, being in fair health, carried his baggage.

We went as far as we could that day, and hid in the palmettos at night. We were actually afraid the rebels would change their minds, and come on and overtake us; hence we hid carefully.

The next morning we were up bright and early. A goodly number of us were on the road, trudging eastward, by sun-up. About noon we came to a creek, whose waters bore the dark tea-color of the swamp. As it flowed smoothly over a sandy bed, and we were tired, we stopped and bathed, and were much refreshed.

About the middle of the afternoon we saw an object that looked like a man on horseback, a mile or so down the road. When we came nearer it was gone. We [187] came to the place and there, sure enough, was the sign of a picket-post. But what had become of him? We did not go far till we saw a troop of cavalry coming toward us. They were too far for us to distinguish their uniform, so we halted. Stragglers kept closing up till we had quite a company, uncertain what to do.

The cavalry halted, and drew up in line. Then two men were sent toward us to see what we were. They doubtless judged by our unmilitary appearance that we were not very formidable. When the two soldiers came near enough for us to see their uniform, a wild shout rent the air. It was taken up by stragglers in the rear, and carried to others still farther back — to be repeated again and again,--giving new vigor to weary limbs that had almost refused to do duty longer. That shout doubtless reached three or four miles back along that road.

Yes, sir! It was the United States uniform!

I have seen a good many fine clothes in my life-but I never saw anything, before [188] or since, that looked so pretty as those cavalry jackets!

We started toward them at once, and went to where the troop was waiting. If we were glad to see their clothes, they were mad when they saw ours.

When the commander of that troop found out who we were, and looked at our rags and our wretchedness, he stood up in his stirrups and swore a terrible oath of vengeance. And scarcely one of those bearded, swarthy troopers but turned away his face to hide the tears that would come up, as he looked in amazement at our haggard countenances, meager skeletons and filthy rags.

The captain told us that it was but three miles to Jacksonville, and that he would go and have tents and rations ready for us.

We came to the infantry picket-line, and there dropped down for a few minutes' rest. There were probably three hundred of us together, forming the head of our column. While we were resting we asked the officer of the guard for news, and he told us that Richmond had fallen,--that Lee had [189] surrendered,--that Johnson had surrendered to Sherman,--that the Confederacy had gone to staves, and that Lincoln was dead!

It is no use trying to describe the effect of this news on men in our condition. My readers would not understand it-language is too feeble.

We did not need rest after we heard the news. We were not a bit tired. We arose and started toward the town, which was yet three-fourths of a mile distant.

About half way to town we met a “field band” and “colors.” We were wild enough before, but when we met the flag we went stark, raving crazy. If we had all been drunk on laughing gas, we would not have acted worse. Old scurvied fellows who could not straighten a limb danced around like puppets and kicked the sand twenty feet high. Some cried — some laughedsome danced — some sung — some prayedsome swore. It was a wonderful medley. We had divers gifts, but the same spirit.

One tall, ragged skeleton began trying to sing-

Wrap the flag around me, boys,

[190] and, reaching out his gaunt, fleshless arms, he caught the folds of the flag, and began to wind it about his vermin-eaten shoulders. Another, and another, joined in the song, and caught at the flag, till soon they had it trailing on the ground, with from twenty to fifty boys sprawling under and over it.

The band stopped playing, and gazed in amazement at the treatment their flag was receiving. Those not engaged in the flag-scuffle, noticing that the music had stopped, gathered handfulls of sand, and, throwing it on the band, told them to give us “The star-spangled Banner” or we would, bury them right there.

The band commenced to play the music, and the boys to sing the words. They got on somehow until they reached-

O, say does the star-spangled banner yet wave?

when, raising one wild whoop, they rushed to the band, upsetting one another in the sand, silencing the music, scattering the drummers, and yelling-“This is God's country!” [191]

Yes, I remember it all; but, reader, you will not see it in my tame description. If I could paint for you the untrimmed, tangled hair, that hung in matted tags or stood out in all directions above brows that had once been noble and fair, but were now all blotched and stained by disease; if I could paint the hollow cheek, the dull eyes, the fleshless limbs, hands like birds' claws-the filthy, vermin-eaten rags; and could then put my picture through all the contortions of unrestrained motion,--even then, you could not see all that is in my memory.

As soon as sense returned, we were told to turn to the left and cross a little creek, beyond which we would camp. We came to the creek, found a box of soap on the bank, and with the shout-“This is God's country, for here's soap!” --more than a hundred men, each with a bar in his hand, plunged into the stream and tried to turn it into soapsuds.

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